The freedom that comes with producing four-century-old Shakespeare can be both a gift and a curse. The lack of anything but the simplest stage directions allows for infinite interpretations, settings, and conceits — a gender-swapped Comedy of Errors set in 1920s Paris, Love’s Labors Lost as a classic 1930s musical, Troilus and Cressida in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, Romeo + Juliet in modern-day Verona Beach. But such freedom includes risk. The more bizarre the interpretation, the more difficulty in selling the conceit, and many ambitious productions, even those with intriguing ideas, can fall flat.
The Denver Performing Arts Center Theatre Company’s Macbeth is one of those rarer productions, completely successful in its ambitious interpretation.
Director Robert O’Hara’s primitively dark and magical all-male production was inspired by Banquo’s Act I, Scene 3 line, “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.” The idea that the witches might not be women at all, but men, led to the production’s main conceit — a group of warlocks (the all-male cast), descendants of the original witches, perform a pagan ritual in which they summon the performance as a sort of morality play.
If that sounds outrageous, that’s because it is. But O’Hara, his cast, and his set, light, sound, and costume designers make it work. The world he’s created is raw and controversial, evidenced by the age recommendation (“high school+”) and lengthy advisory, including warnings for stylized violence, minimal costuming (including exposed skin), some sexual content, pulsating music, fog/haze, strobe lights, loud noises, and e-cigarettes. As disturbing as that all may sound listed out, it works for a show in which the main character brutally racks up a long list of victims, including young children. While most of the violence is stylized — arms become swords and even daggers in the “Is that a dagger I see before me?” scene — Duncan’s death is bloody, even as the two daggers Macbeth wields never come within a foot of him. But if this production proves anything, it’s that cold-blooded murder is more than disturbing enough on its own.
The all-male cast creates clear LGBTQ+ undertones (and overtones), providing both excellent reality and representation. The two husband-wife relationships, the Macbeths and the Macduffs, become relationships between two male actors; the Macbeths even have a steamy, stylized sex scene when he returns from battle. Lady Macbeth has an affair with an ambiguously gendered servant, and Macbeth and Banquo have an interesting heavily-implied-while-alive, overt-after-murder sexual relationship that points to a deeper connection than is obvious in the text. Such relationships contrast nicely with the overt themes of toxic masculinity, both in the text and this particular interpretation. The ambiance of debauchery of Duncan and his entourage (drugs and alcohol and perhaps an implied orgy?) prior to the king’s final night at Castle Macbeth tell us these are not innocent or admirable royals, which brings Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech into nice relief. Why wouldn’t she question her husband’s masculinity and wish to be a man herself, when that’s all that seems to matter in this world?
Dede M. Ayite’s costume designs play with gender roles as much as the casting does. Androgyny is the name of the game here for most of the actors, many of whom wear their long hair down. The warlocks wear black speedos, black boots or sandals, and black S&M-esque tops that barely cover anything, resulting in what must be a record-setting amount of stage time featuring half-naked men in a Shakespeare production. As the various characters are “summoned,” they are dressed in a bizarre mashup of warlock uniform and classic Elizabethan garb. Thus Macbeth (the superb Ariel Shafir) wears an Elizabethan collar and pumpkin pants, knee-high boots, a top vaguely invoking the idea of armor, and leather wristlets, with bare arms and legs. Duncan (Gareth Saxe), seeming to channel a strip club version of Hamilton’s King George III, wears a speedo, crown, kingly robe, and nothing else. Lady Macbeth (Adam Poss) is dressed by the warlocks in a corset and medieval-looking short skirt frame covered in the back by a long skirt, but showing her bare, clearly masculine legs in the front. Later, when she is crowned queen, she dons a fancier (but matching) robe with impressions of sleeves and a high collar, a beautifully powerful image of Queen E herself.
The set, lighting, and sound design all work so seamlessly together, it’s almost impossible to discuss them separately. The Space Theater was designed in 1985 to resemble the Old Globe Theatre, and was remodeled just this year; in fact, Macbeth marks its grand re-opening. Its pentagonal shape creates an intimate in-the-round stage that works so well for the simultaneously ancient and timeless pagan ritual setting that it’s difficult to tell where the stage ends and Jason Sherwood’s set design begins. The stage floor is a giant summoning circle, covered in symbols from dozens of languages and times — or rather, three concentric summoning circles which rotate independently of each other. The middle circle is a platform that can rise to become Duncan’s deathbed or the Macbeths’ table, or sink to become a cauldron for the warlocks’ “Double, double, toil, and trouble” chant. At one point, a character descends from the ceiling on a small, yes, pentagonal platform. There are also a few temporary set pieces rolled onto the floor by the cast themselves, like the castle cutouts which surround the partying royal entourage as it commits its debauchery.
Alex Jainchill’s lighting design is so well-integrated into the set it seems to be a part of it. Because there are no permanent set pieces besides the platforms, the lighting creates much of the implied scenery. The stage is bathed in green when triangular scaffolding invoking Birnam Wood rolls from each of the five aisles to form a star/pentagram filling the entire stage. And during the most unsettling scene, when the entire cast of warlocks, joined by Hecate, chant and dance a primitive magical rite around a bonfire, the smoke and lighting combine with a set piece of stacked wood to produce a disturbingly realistic fire.
But the set and lighting effects wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the sound design of Lindsay Jones. The sounds alone would be creepy enough — when the drunk porter rants about hell, the audience hears flames and other eerie sound effects; when battles rage, the sounds of swords ring out; and when Macbeth hears whispers, so do we. But it’s the music that truly brings the whole raw, intense, primitive production together. Some (if not all) of the aggressive trap music is original, composed by Jones. It is loud, uncomfortable, intense, and at times even bad-ass — the musical entrance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as king and queen, in particular, with Lady M in full Queen Elizabeth garb, nailed the sense of triumph (for the Macbeths) and foreboding (for everyone else).
While the entire cast is excellent — it’s never easy to double- or even triple-up roles, much less in such a physical production — Ariel Shafir as Macbeth shines. His delivery of the 400-year-old text manages to sound more modern than some contemporary dialogue. He brings out the humanity in Macbeth through his humor (never let anyone tell you Macbeth, the show or the character, isn’t funny), fear, and guilt, but not so much that the audience doesn’t root for his eventual defeat. Shafir’s chemistry with Adam Poss’s Lady Macbeth also serves to humanize him — their interactions are so natural and, again, modern, that the audience laughed during some of the most serious scenes of the show. Poss’s question and subsequent exasperation when questioning Macbeth about why he didn’t leave the daggers at the scene of the crime and Shafir’s annoyed response feel as though they are bickering about a grocery list and not murder.
Which isn’t to say that the actors don’t nail the serious moments as well. Poss creates a powerful and terrifying Lady Macbeth, and Shafir successfully conveys Macbeth’s turn from initial doubts to the seeming ease with which he orders (and sometimes commits) the atrocities that follow. There is never any doubt that they are both villains.
O’Hara’s direction leads to edits to the text that are unusual in contemporary productions. The scenes with Hecate, for instance, which are usually cut for time and because their provenance is questionable, not only work with the central conceit but add to it. And someone did their mythological homework, because Hecate, a triune goddess, is played by three different actors who either split her lines or speak as one. While the immense fight and other choreography is credited in the program to the entire ensemble, the idea of an eerie danse macabre of daggers (arms wearing white opera gloves, which glow blue in the black light) as Macbeth contemplates regicide must have originated with O’Hara. The production is full of choices like that — Macbeth’s murders are made more personal because of the specific actors/characters chosen to double as the murderers. The warlocks raise Banquo from the dead to haunt Macbeth like a zombie-ghost hybrid. Lady Macduff gets a beautifully choreographed fight scene, which makes her eventual defeat that much more upsetting. And during the final fight between Macduff and Macbeth, the warlocks use magic to manipulate time and space so that Macbeth’s death is particularly vengeful and satisfying.
Such an ambitious production could easily have failed spectacularly if any one of its massive moving parts — directing, casting, choreography, stage, set, lighting, sound — had been weak. Its success is a feat unto itself. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that such an ambitious production provides more than just a gimmick, but a truly new take on a centuries-old play. Emotionally, this production takes a toll. At intermission, I sat stunned for several minutes, unable to pull myself out of the intensity of the show, and when I attempted to write a few notes about my thoughts, all I had were a series of interjections and adjectives: Wow. Intense. Bizarre. Metal. Creepy. Raw. Wow. As I left the theater after the show, my body ached with a tension I hadn’t noticed until it was gone.
That’s what good theatre should do. That’s what good Shakespeare should do. The exquisite discomfort of DCPA’s Macbeth is perfect for the story of one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. This production will stick with me for a very long time, and in theatre, there’s no higher compliment than that.